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My father, Fred,
was one of nine children, of whom six brothers made it into adulthood. Although only two still survive, four of them lived well into their 90’s, so there are strong genes on the male side of my family! Growing up, two things struck me about him:
First, his exceptional hands-on ability to fix anything that ever needed fixing, whether it was a repair or a problem that needed solving (the RAF gave him five quid for devising a tripod-like support to make a crane-jib far stronger). From his war years in India, working on planes made in the late 20’s/early 30’s out of wood and canvas, he knew how to improvise a solution with whatever ‘gash’ (ie surplus or throwaway) materials he had to hand. The results weren’t always pretty or neat - this frequently annoyed my mother, as she loved things neat and tidy - but they worked.
Secondly was his exceptionally relaxed, calm demeanour. I can only remember him ever shouting once in anger (at my mother, as she struggled to get to grips with the clutch and gear shift of our new car). He just didn’t get worked up. He was always cheerful and saw the positive in any situation. It’s probably one reason why he never looked his age - the undertaker was astonished when he learned Fred was 96. Just two days before he died, the nurse asked me, as I sat at his bedside, if we were brothers?! How my Dad loved that! The nurse was by no means the first to make that mistake (and it’s more a compliment to Dad than to dis me!!)
Several years ago, I was storytelling at Raffles City mall and Dad came along to watch. The man on stage before me was a lifestyle coach and asked what the audience would do if they were told they had a week to live. He gave his mic to several people who responded by saying they’d like to visit America, go on a safari, make up with an estranged family member etc ... When the coach asked my father, Fred simply smiled and said ‘Nothing - I’d carry on living exactly as I am.” There was nothing he felt he’d left undone. The coach was astonished, and told the audience that in 16 years of asking that question, Fred was the first person who had ever given this answer! (As far as the coach was concerned, Fred’s reply was the ideal!) And it was true: when I asked him in the week before this final Christmas, if he wanted anything, he said no. He had chatted with his brothers David and Stanley on his birthday at the end of November, there was no unfinished business, he was content.
I didn’t know him much growing up: when I was going on 7, he was posted here and my parents decided to put me in a boarding school in UK and for the next three years, I only saw them during the summer holidays. They acted with good intentions but the separation meant that I became emotionally distant from them forever after. Living with him for the past 14 years, however, allowed me to see him much more closely. I’d always felt that we had little in common: he was so adept with his hands, taking apart an engine, growing his beloved vegetables and making his excellent apple chutney, whereas I’ve always resisted activities that get my hands greasy, dirty or splintered! I’d always identified with my mother for her love of poetry and literature. But here in Singapore, it was Fred who applied himself to learning keyboard skills so he could author his autobiography (a copy was gratefully accepted by the RAF Museum for his account of the hitherto unseen part played by ground-crew, not the pilots, during the war in India).
He had a knack for being able to talk with anyone - probably because he was a great listener (without a personal agenda) - and always had plenty of stories to share, with a warm laugh, a Welsh lilt in his voice, and a smile in his eyes that made him easy to talk with. Many of the young kids here at Bayshore Park called him ‘Mr Magic’, because he would always carry a simple little trick in his pocket - they made perfect ice-breakers - and he’d start nonchalantly producing silk from his palm, or challenging them to solve a deceptively simple wooden puzzle which it seemed only he could do.
He became an avid reader, sat on our balcony reading for hours. He had a favourite book of poetry (The Nation’s 100 Favourite Poems) I’d given him & Mum as a Christmas present, 20 years ago. Yeats Lake Isle of Innisfree was one he loved: I read it to him in hospital, and later he asked for it and the nurse, god bless her, googled it and read it to him (now that’s service, Changi Hospital!)
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
It’s how I like to think of him now, at rest, in a bee-loud glade, in an evening full of the angel’s wings.
26 Nov 1918 - 25 Dec 2014
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